The principal of a school in Nairobi that I visited not too long ago told me bluntly that he was convinced Kiswahili would be dead within the next 100 years.
He added that if he had the power, he would scrap it from the school curriculum altogether.
The chilling prediction caught me unaware because I had been invited to the school to talk to the students about the importance of studying and using Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East and Central Africa.
Was the the principal now implying that my talk would turn out be at the very least an exercise in futility and at the very worst an elegy to a dying language?
Is Kiswahili in the region really doing the dead march? Could it be that the potency and vivaciousness of Kiswahili are invisible to the principal and his ilk?
The principal’s prophecy of doom and gloom for Kiswahili reminded me of my encounter in Nairobi with Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2013.
When I taught African literature at universities in the United States, I found myself joining the bandwagon of African critics who touted her as “the new kid on the block” as far as the African literary scene was concerned. The writer of Half a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus, and recently Americanah, has over a relatively short period of time taken the literary scene by storm.
Following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe and propounding an African identity and assertiveness that aspires to the global as it transcends the local, Adichie has become an overnight literary icon.
Like Kenya’s Yvonne Adhiambo Owour and Binyavanga Wainaina and Uganda’s Doreen Baingana and Goretti Kyomuhendo, Adichie belongs to the new generation of African writers, whose works, in English have generated considerable critical acclaim both at home and away.
Adichie’s iconic status was brought home to me when I met her during her recent visit to Kenya during which she gave talks and granted several media interviews.
I met her moments after TV breakfast show host Kobi Kihara had interviewed her on NTV Kenya’s AM Show. Many of my colleagues at Nation Centre on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street were scrambling for an opportunity for a selfie with her and to shake her creative hand. Like the rest of the enthusiastic admirers, I was eager to shake her hand too, and to compliment her for her remarkable work, not to mention taking a picture with her.
I had always wondered what would have become of Adichie if she had chosen to write in her Igbo mother tongue rather than in English, the language once chosen by her towering Igbo mentor Achebe upon whose shoulders she now stands and to whom her literary oeuvre owes a lot stylistically and thematically.
Achebe had argued in the famous language debate with Obi Wali in the 1960s that in spite of English being imposed on him, he was glad to use it as the vehicle of his literary creativity, adding that “English was capable of carrying the African experience.”
Obi Wali had opened a can of worms by stating that African literature in European languages had reached a “dead end.”
I engaged Adichie on the “what if?” of writing in Igbo and she did not hide her horror at the depth of oblivion and the dearth of readership to which such a choice would have subjected her.
Every writer dreads oblivion, especially for themselves and perhaps for others too.
After attending the 1961 Conference for African Writers of English Expression at Makerere, young Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who then wrote solely in English, had wondered about the oblivion that Shaaban bin Robert, who wrote in Kiswahili, and Daniel O. Fagunwa, who wrote in Yoruba, suffered for not being invited to the conference of such eminence because of their choice of the ostensibly inferior African languages for their artistic expression.
Years later, after Ngugi had flourished because of choosing English as the vehicle of his literary output, he had gained the temerity to lambast English and to rehash Obi Wali’s call for the use of African languages in African literature.
It is a paradox that Ngugi’s most polemical essays against English and other European languages such as those in Decolonising the Mind and Writers in Politics were written in English. Ngugi, like Adichie and her forerunner Achebe, had avoided oblivion in the global reading market by their choice of language.
In a sense, language has the capacity to render one invisible to the world. It is this invisibility that Adichie feared for herself had she chosen Igbo. And she feared for me too when I mentioned that I am an author writing in Shaaban Robert’s Kiswahili. “Who reads Kiswahili?” she remarked. “Nobody would buy my books if I wrote in Igbo!”
If she had written in Igbo, TV host Kihara would not even have heard of her, much less grant her a live TV interview. My colleagues wouldn’t have scrambled for a selfie with her or jostled to shake her hand. It appeared evident from our conversation that I had by writing in Kiswahili rendered myself invisible to the world.
I was acutely aware of the fact that Adichie didn’t know me and would perhaps not even remember our post- breakfast show banter. Yet I was not quite convinced about my invisibility.
To my mind, invisibility to the world is not synonymous to invisibility to the East African world. Kiswahili is the lingua franca of the East and Central Africa region with an estimated 150 million speakers.
Kiswahili is the official language of the East African Community and is the only African official language of the African Union. And yet East African presidents and leaders seldom muster the courage to use it in EAC and AU meetings.
This is the case, despite the fact that the bulk of them, particularly in Kenya and Tanzania, traverse the landscape using Kiswahili to woo the “invisible and insignificant” masses to vote for them during elections campaigns.
Are the political leaders in fear of the invisibility associated with using African languages? Is Kiswahili the language of the invisible masses in the region rather the “visible” elite occupying the echelons of power?
Kiswahili is the language of trade and social interaction in most urban centres in Kenya and Tanzania and the rest of the region. Kiswahili is the national language of Kenya and Tanzania.
Additionally, according to Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, Kiswahili shares with English the status of official language.
However, during national holidays in Kenya, affairs are conducted in English including the president’s official speech as is the case in Uganda. Do the Japanese celebrate their national holidays in English or French for fear of invisibility?
What purpose does a speech in English serve but to speak to the few foreign envoys attending the celebrations? Do the English celebrate their important days in Luganda or Kinyamwezi to pander to the whims of Ugandan and Tanzanian envoys and or nationals in England? Does this signify the impending death of Kiswahili?
There is a joke doing the rounds about the tragic and brief “life history” of Kiswahili.
There are various versions of the joke. One states that Kiswahili was born in Tanzania, it journeyed to Kenya where it caught a fever, and continued travelling despite ill-health up to Uganda where it succumbed to the fever and was interred. Of course, this is a fallacy.
Kiswahili has never caught a fever, neither has it ever died. And what is more, the principal’s gloomy prophecy about the death of Kiswahili is far-fetched and unrealistic.
To the East African masses who use it in their trade and daily inter-ethnic and regional interactions, Kiswahili is far from being sick or dead; it is as robust and vibrant as ever, their most reliable vehicle of communication.
Although the wananchi of East Africa do not all have the same level of competence in Kiswahili, they view it as the veritable lingua franca.
Adichie might have been right in wondering “Who reads Kiswahili?” It may seem that the masses who watch Kiswahili on TV or listen to it on radio do not have the same enthusiasm for reading Kiswahili literature.
But more and more publishing entities are investing in publishing Kiswahili books in the region.
Would this exponential increase in the number of Kiswahili texts happen if publishers did not envisage a substantial market of willing readers, nay buyers?
Kiswahili is taught as a mandatory subject in Kenyan and Tanzanian primary and secondary schools and Uganda has lately joined the bandwagon.
Apparently, Uganda is poised to become the next best home of Kiswahili. Ugandans are slowly and surely being disabused of the nefarious notion that Kiswahili in Uganda is synonymous with the brutality of Idi Amin’s Kiswahili-speaking soldiers and their successors.
It is, after all, the language of the masses of the East and Central African region. And publishers are more than keenly aware of the promising Ugandan market.
Media owners who invest in radio and television broadcasting in Kiswahili have realised you can never go wrong with this. The appetite for Kiswahili media in the region, the good, bad and ugly is guaranteed. These investors are cognizant of the fact that Kiswahili does not render them invisible but visible.
In sum, those who predict Kiswahili’s demise and play down its rightful place as the language of the peoples of East and Central Africa, purvey a lie I refuse to buy.
I am not sure I will be alive in the next 100 years, but I am sure as death that Kiswahili will be alive and kicking and thriving in its cradle in East Africa and beyond.
Prof Ken Walibora is quality manager of Kiswahili Media, Nation Media Group.